An unexpected bird sanctuary is the focus of Robert Zhao Renhui’s latest work

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The Singaporean artist shares the story behind the latest chapter of his ongoing project, The Institute of Critical Zoologists

In late 2019, 37-year-old Singaporean artist Robert Zhao Renhui was invited to work on a project about the relationship between humans and the local environment for the He Art museum in the Shunde district of Guangzhou, China. Upon arriving in the city, the first thing he noticed was how void of birds the city seemed. “We didn’t hear or see a single one the whole first day we were there, and I just kept thinking ‘where have all the birds gone?’” he recalls. “It didn’t bode well for the project when not even the most common of them could be seen.”

Working alongside an ecologist, Zhao was introduced to a man called Mr Xian, otherwise known as the ‘The Bird Uncle of Shunde’. Mr Xian was a construction magnate with a compelling story. In 1998 he had rented 180 hectares of land in Guangzhou in which to grow bamboo as scaffolding material, but when migratory birds such as herons started to build their homes in his flourishing bamboo forest, he made the decision to close the gates to the site and stop harvesting altogether. He has dedicated the years since to creating a sustainable sanctuary for them. Zhao describes the remote, otherworldly atmosphere of the place: “he dug a moat around the bamboo forest as a barrier from the city and he keeps human visitors out almost entirely.” After Zhao told him about the project he had in mind, he invited them into the forest. “Once we were there I could hear birds everywhere.”

© Robert Zhao Renhui.
© Robert Zhao Renhui.

“Art is not burdened by the same things that science is. I do not have a research objective or a paper to submit at the end of this survey. I simply want to see what this forest can tell us”

© Robert Zhao Renhui.

Over the course of the next 12 months, Zhao set up 20 remote sensing cameras around the forest. Every time there was a change in temperature, sound or movement, the cameras whirred into action and recorded a video. Zhao would then watch the footage back and take stills. The resulting project, entitled Evidence of Things Not Seen, pairs photographs and moving images together, encompassing grainy, black and white scenes of birds mid-flight, and the sprawling city seen through foliage far in the distance.

Evidence of Things Not Seen forms part of a larger ongoing project, The Institute of Critical Zoologists. Zhao started it while studying photography at Camberwell College of Arts, as a way to playfully weave threads of enquiry between the worlds of art and science. “I began to question how art could be an alternative way of understanding nature. Art is not burdened by the same things that science is. I do not have a research objective or a paper to submit at the end of this survey. I simply want to see what this forest can tell us.”

Mr Xian’s bird sanctuary is nestled in the Pearl River Delta — one of the largest and fastest-expanding urbanised areas in the world. In recent years, birds have been used in this region and others like it as indicators of any changes that might be taking place in the environment. “By documenting the types of birds and the number of them, we can receive vital information,” Zhao says. Looking forward, Mr Xian will continue upkeeping the space for as long as he is able, and Zhao plans to document them for at least another five years. “In the lives of the herons and the forest, 12 months is simply not enough,” he says, “it’s only given us glimpses of the full story. There’s so much more to know.”

Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London